From Gratuitous to Contrived


I like that word. It's such a perfect description of elements in a story that just have no place, at least not for the reader or viewer. Esme used it in her last blog post, and it stuck with me, so I thought I would continue with it. As I read her post, I found myself glad that someone else had the same reactions that I did when something pops up in a story and I just have to ask, "Why?"

One of the first examples of this I remember is in the movie The Mexican. SPOILER ALERT: In it, for some reason, the Julia Roberts character meets a gay hitman and they share screen time where there's romping around in a hotel until he finally meets the man of his dreams or something along those lines. This, to me, has nothing to do with the story except said hitman is supposed to be trying to kill Brad Pitt's character. As it ends up, Brad Pitt kills him first, to Julia's mortification because she'd bonded with the guy without knowing who he was. It doesn't sound too bad, I'm sure, but the whole time I'm watching, I'm thinking they could have chopped twenty minutes of this side story so that we could continue on with the movie that I actually wanted to see, which had to do with Julia and Brad breaking up and getting back together while being chased by hitmen. It seemed like the writers added that entire section to show how empathetic and caring Julia's character was, and it felt so, so...


Yes, I said the bad word that writers hate to hear, mostly because when our editors say something seems contrived, it's because we've been caught contriving it. lol When you sense something is in a story for no good reason, that it's gratuitous, it sometimes means that it was contrived, or forced, into the storyline for the author's own purposes. When you're scratching your head and thinking, "Why the hell did Sally get drunk and sleep with that stranger in the alley?", the writer is thinking, "Well, the only way people will see how irresponsible Sally is will be to have her engage in a drunken roll in the hay with a stranger in an alley." Instead of letting Sally's faults play out throughout the story, this writer chose to stick in a random incident that should do the trick in a couple of paragraphs, slapping the reader in the face with Sally's character flaw instead of crafting it into the story.

Readers can sense when something is contrived in an instant, and it's usually a clue that the writer wrote herself into a corner and didn't know how to get out. For example, perhaps our intrepid heroine goes off on a wild African safari and the writer is enjoying the hell out of writing it so much she forgets to find a way to get rescue her heroine when she gets caught by a hostile group of smugglers. Miles from nowhere on a secluded mountain top, all of the sudden, a rival band of smugglers sneaks in and kills the bad guys, accidentally freeing the heroine, who runs off, before disappearing completely from the story, never to be seen or heard from again. Now the heroine can return to the original storyline, where she should have stayed, and the reader can relax until the heroine trails off on a tangent again, this time to be rescued by an orangutan or perhaps the Easter Bunny.

Silly, I know, but so are some of the contrived contraptions we writers come up with sometimes to keep the story moving when we've put something in for no good reason or a reason we thought was good at the time, but it turns out it wasn't. Can you think of any contrived storylines you've read, one where it gets so totally unrealistic and unbelievable that you're left wondering what happened? Please do share!

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